As the new season is just getting underway, we started chatting about previous seasons and their highs and lows – literally. A seemingly innocuous run down Glenshee’s Coire Fionn was almost Paul’s last.
It was a Sunday in mid-January, although the mild weather meant that conditions were more spring-like, with slushy snow on top of an already thin base. We didn’t mind though, we were just delighted to be there after such a late start to the season. Although Cairngorm gets all the press, we love Glenshee. Often called the 3 valleys of Scotland, it feels like such an adventure as you head up and over each hill, with the crowds thinning out the further out you get from the main car park. It has the added bonus of being just 2 hours’ drive from Glasgow and Edinburgh, making it perfect for a day trip, where Aviemore’s distance means we really need a weekend to make it worthwhile.
I was slightly ahead of Paul as we came down, and near the end of the run the snow was getting a bit bare in places, with yellow poles marking some hazards. I negotiated my way round these and waited by the Poma for Paul to arrive. He was on a downhill section, and ahead of him were a flat area then the final downhill which had the hazards. I could see him about to approach the flat area, and he started to carve sharply on his toe edge so that his board was at right angles to the slope. Then, as he approached the flat area he disappeared from view for a second, which is what I expected based on the angle of the slope. The next thing I saw was just his board going over his head in what just looked like a normal fall, so I had a little chuckle. Then he disappeared from view again.
I waited a few seconds for him to reappear, but to my dismay he didn’t. I was beginning to understand the gravity of the situation when I saw two nearby skiers unclipping and running to where he was. I started sprinting up the hill, only to see the chilling sight of Paul’s board upside down on the snow, with his body down a hole. Even worse, I could see similar holes further down, all with water inside them – this was a river covered by snow, snow which was collapsing.
By the time I reached him, the skiers had helped wrestle him free, he was soaked and looked petrified. His only words as we were escorted to the patrol hut were “disbelief, that should have been marked.” And he was right, it was the only hazard without the crossed poles above it. He told me about the experience while we were waiting for the snowmobile to take him back to base. “I hit a little jump and started to fall backwards, expecting to hit the snow at any second. But the journey continued until I was submerged in icy cold water for a good couple of minutes. I had to hold myself in a sit-up position until they freed me, to stop myself from drowning. I feel genuinely lucky to be alive.”
We were chatting to the lifty as he was making Paul a cup of tea. Paul realised that his hat and goggles were missing since the fall. When we asked the lifty about the chance of getting them back he laughed, “No chance mate. I set up a net down the river at the start of the season, and when the snow melts I collect everything I find and I sell it on eBay.”